The secret of sustainably agile teams

Business wants everything to be agile. Agile marketing. Agile development. Transform to be more agile. At Harvard Business School, companies spend significant funds teaching their people “agile.” Often this starts by understanding the concepts of agile development (such as the Agile Manifesto) with clear stories, small scrum teams, short sprints delivering software every two weeks, minimum viable products with frequent iteration, continuous conversation and self-organizing, motivated teams. 

As agile moves beyond development, enterprises often explore the SAFe Agile framework to align agile development with budgeting and strategy. And while agile is founded on the efficacy of teams, the secret of truly agile teams – teams that can adapt, align and execute in the face of continuous change – is emotional agility. 

The secret of truly agile teams – teams that can adapt, align and execute in the face of continuous change – is emotional agility. 

2020 and 2021 demonstrated to people across the globe that change can be both instantaneous and radical. In effect, every team in every organization suddenly had to be agile and the emotional strain of constant change was more apparent.

For larger businesses, the rate of change was unprecedented as contracts were delayed or canceled, key individuals left or changed roles (or worse), and priorities in the market shifted. Teams had to be agile in assessing new information, developing their new strategy, executing and reassessing. 

Teams are made up of people, and while those people were endeavoring to understand and make good choices for their business, they were all dealing with the personal ramifications of a global pandemic. And, for the first time, many people found their home and work boundaries completely obscured. While we slowly return to whatever the new normal is, the rate and amplitude of change are unlikely to slow due to more information, capital and choice. And the people who make up teams will continue to bring their emotions to work (because there’s no way to leave them “home”). If managers don’t recognize and adapt to people’s emotions, their teams will struggle to be agile.

On Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. Dr. Susan David addressed agility: 

You say you want innovation, but innovation dances an intimate dance with failure. You say you want a collaboration. Collaboration dances an intimate dance with conflict.”

Dr. Susan David, Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. part 2

Emotional agility, as defined by Dr. David, is the ability to recognize and label emotions, resist the urge to make the emotions go away (there is a lot of talk about toxic positivity in the podcast and I highly recommend it, but that’s not the focus of this article), and help your team’s members use their emotions as “signposts” to their values. Those signposts can easily become motivational and inspirational. 

People are inherently emotional, and there is no way to turn off our emotions. Leaders who are uncomfortable with emotions cannot create the psychological safety needed for teams to innovate, collaborate and be truly agile. Innovation and collaboration entail a high risk of failure and conflict – both experiences that trigger emotional reactions, mostly  avoidant. For our teams to be truly and sustainably agile, team leaders must be comfortable encountering and facing the full range of emotions.

For our teams to be truly and sustainably agile, team leaders must be comfortable encountering and facing the full range of emotions.

Team leaders need to develop their emotional intelligence to create emotionally agile teams. 

  1. Acknowledge emotions
    The team leader needs to respect that each person on the team is coming to the team with emotions, and the more effective the team leader is at recognizing those emotions, the better the team will flow. Dr. Susan David recommends “labeling” emotions – in journals or even verbally. In a one-on-one conversation, a team leader can ask “I wonder if you are feeling [label]” or “Before we get to work, what’s happening for you (emotionally) right now.”  Of course, they’re not under any obligation to share their feelings with you, so don’t pressure, but ask.
  2. Don’t fix or dismiss emotions
    Don’t try to fix/solve or “look on the bright side.” That tells the other person that you care about making their feelings go away so they can focus on the work. That’s the route to dysfunction, resentment and friction within the team. Instead, try compassion and empathy. Every person wants to be seen and to know they are not alone. In fact, authentic acknowledgement of an emotion will increase the amount of time team members can focus on the work rather than fighting for their teammates to acknowledge their emotions.
  3. Encourage emotional curiosity on teams
    Model using your own emotions for “signposts.” Dr. Susan David’s incredible insight is that emotions are signposts to values about which we care deeply. — values we can act upon. For instance, being curious about why you’re upset can reveal what you care about, asking yourself : “what signposts are my emotions showing me?” is powerful. Emotional agility is born of the ability to respect and inspect your emotions for the signposts they provide to your values. When a team has the psychological safety to discuss and align on shared values, that team can achieve flow and be more agile and effective.  That’s a team that gets a great deal more done, is sustainable and effective in every circumstance.

You are not being driven by your feelings. Rather, you are using the wisdom of your feelings to guide you in your values.

– Dr. Susan David

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